Why aren’t we working with Japan and India?

By Michael Green and Daniel Twining

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in India for a strategic dialogue that will focus on how China’s ascendance is transforming Asia. At her next stop, Indonesia, she is to hold trilateral consultations — U.S.-Japan-Korea and U.S.-Japan-Australia — on the margins of a broader regional forum. The Obama administration understands that Japan and India are critical bookends of a regional strategy aimed at peaceful cooperation with a rising China. Both Japan and India are moving closer to the United States precisely because of their concerns about China’s direction. Yet something is adrift.

The alliance with Japan, a pillar of America’s forward presence in the Pacific for nearly six decades, has been buffeted by electoral change and natural disasters. The Obama administration weathered the victory of the populist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 — a transition after nearly a half-century of one-party rule — then won kudos across the Japanese political spectrum for its massive humanitarian response to the March earthquake and tsunami. Yet Japan’s deadlocked political system has produced only disappointment on Tokyo’s earlier pledges to realign U.S. bases on Okinawa and to join trade liberalization talks through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Senior Obama administration officials pepper talks about Japan with eye-rolling and expressions of exasperation.

India has also disappointed. The Bush administration handed off a strategic relationship with New Delhi transformed by agreements on peaceful nuclear cooperation and intensified security and economic collaboration. Yet in the first two years of the Obama administration, the Indians have opposed the United States on climate and trade initiatives, failed to enact liability legislation needed for American companies to develop India’s nuclear industry, resisted meaningful economic reforms, cozied up to Burma’s junta with gas and arms deals, and rejected U.S. combat aircraft in India’s biggest defense deal to date. The refrain in Washington is that the Bush administration oversold the potential for strategic partnership with New Delhi.

The Obama administration needs to consider what has shifted in these pivotal relationships and where it bears responsibility for the listlessness in our two biggest strategic partnerships in Asia.

Domestic political weakness is at play in both countries. Japan has lurched from one unstable coalition to the next, with more likely to follow if Prime Minister Naoto Kan steps down in August as expected. While the DPJ seems to have abandoned its earlier flirtation with greater “independence” from Washington — thanks in part to Chinese assertiveness this past year — the Obama administration remains strikingly un-ambitious in setting the agenda for security cooperation with Tokyo. The allies should be having a focused dialogue about recapitalizing our militaries and strengthening interoperability to prepare for a more confident, better-armed China and a nuclear North Korea; instead, that effort has been relegated to an anemic mid-level working group. The administration dropped the sub-Cabinet-level coordination body with Japan on economic issues while elevating the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to a body that includes half the president’s Cabinet.

Meanwhile, India’s ruling Congress Party is beset by scandal, internal bickering and declining popularity. But any future Indian government will face similar challenges from coalition politics. Indians rightly complain that Washington’s preoccupation with China and “Af-Pak” has displaced India as a focus of U.S. foreign policy, and New Delhi has lost confidence in the administration’s commitment to Afghanistan, where a precipitous U.S. withdrawal threatens to undermine core Indian interests with regard to Pakistan, China and terrorism. And as India strikes trade agreements with a range of other partners, a U.S.-India investment treaty is mired in U.S. bureaucracy.

For all of these negatives, there are upsides. An emerging generation of Japanese politicians and business leaders is keen to break old patterns and establish more dynamic economic and security strategies. After decades of distrust, India’s leaders have identified partnership with the United States as essential to facilitating India’s geopolitical rise and economic development.

Tokyo and New Delhi want to reinforce, not undermine, American leadership in Asia and the world. But mixed U.S. messaging about “strategic restraint” and “strategic reassurance” toward our competitors encourages India and Japan to pursue self-help strategies premised on a belief that Washington’s determination to defend common interests is wanting. The tone of our relationships is set in Washington as well as in Tokyo and New Delhi. The Japanese and Indians may well be all the things American critics allege. But they are the only Japanese and Indians we have, and a bolder vision for these critical partnerships is essential.

Michael Green, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2005, is Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University. Daniel Twining, a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2007 to 2009, is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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